Rediscovering the Legacy of Herbert Sri Nissanka

Driven by his mother’s memories, Amal Randhir Karunaratna is on a quest to reclaim his grandfather’s rightful place as a history maker of Sri Lanka.

Amal Randhir Karunaratna is known for many things. He is CEO of Breakthrough Business Intelligence, Director at Sinhaputra Finance, an academic attached to the Universities of Adelaide and Sydney as well as IPM, scuba-diver, and a committed follower of the Dhamma. What Amal brings to the marketplace is the rare and necessary ability to translate academic research into practical guidance, a skill he uses to make sure that the Breakthrough team doesn’t just give their clients chunks of indecipherable market data, but meaningful information which impacts business operations.

Sri Nissanka served in the Ceylon Light Infantry and founded the Salagala Monastery as well as the Biyagama Monastery. The statesman was also a sportsman, often traveling to Jaipur for polo games with Indian royalty

Despite his numerous professional engagements, Amal prioritizes his spirituality. A large portion of his time is spent at the Kanduboda Meditation Centre where he engages in the practice of the Dhamma under the tutelage of Ven. Premasiri.

These spiritual leanings and diverse passions are only a few of the things Amal inherits from a man whose early life and full contributions to Sri Lankan law, politics and culture he is on a quest to uncover: his maternal grandfather, Herbert Sri Nissanka, K. C.

“His life as a lawyer and politician is reasonably well documented,” Amal says, “but there is very little about his young life”.

What is known of Herbert Sri Nissanka borders on a number of facts you can memorize, one for each finger on your two hands. He was born on 7 December 1898 to Nissanka Diveris Mendis and Anoma Wickramaratne De Zoysa, and educated at Ananda College and Royal College. He read for his BA at St. Edmund Hall, Oxford and was soon called to the bar at Middle Temple. He maintained a stellar reputation in the criminal courts of Ceylon and was elected to the parliament in 1947. Sri Nissanka also served in the Ceylon Light Infantry and founded the Salagala Monastery as well as the Biyagama Monastery. The statesman was also a sportsman, often traveling to Jaipur for polo games with Indian royalty. He is also almost cursorily known as a founder member of the SLFP – a matter his descendants have a bone to pick about. In Amal’s words, Herbert Sri Nissanka’s name is “almost expunged from the historical records of Sri Lanka”. “The Yamuna conferences are central to the history of the SLFP, its beginnings,” he continues, “Sri Nissanka was not simply a founder member but the founder of the party.” Amal has made it his purpose is to reinstate his grandfather in “his rightful place in the history of this country” – to establish the magnitude of his contributions to Sri Lanka and to the Dhamma.

hThe facts that are not so well known about Sri Nissanka’s life, Amal picks up from memorabilia – photographs, papercuttings,
recordings of speeches, books and other writings by and of Sri Nissanka – which he and his sister Avanti have collected over the years. The impetus and passion for this project come from Amal’s mother, Manel, the oldest child of Herbert Sri Nissanka.

Manel Yamuna Devi Sri Nissanka-Karunaratna now lives at her husband’s ancestral home “Gunfire” in Kandy, where her son Amal and daughter Avanti spend a lot of time with her. She loves her father dearly, and speaks of him as a friend, but remains also respectfully distanced from him.

“He was, in a way, like a stranger to me,” she says, piecing together scattered but brilliant images of Sri Nissanka.

Manel was born on Christmas Day in 1930, to Sri Nissanka and Muriel Spurling Christoffelz, the daughter of Scottish and English parents. Her portraits in regular western garb and fancy dress which hang along the main corridor at Gunfire show a soft-featured doe-eyed beauty. Her white skin and Sri Nissanka’s dark complexion made them an ill-matched couple in the eyes of society, and the love affair was not encouraged. Sri Nissanka bided his time. Inspired by her beauty and the romance of the Taj Mahal, he built Muriel a grand figure of a house on Maya Avenue, complete with domes and ponds, and named it “Yamuna” after the river that flows beside the original. Then, when the Burgher girl turned 21 he stole her away, literally on a white stallion. The first daughter of this romance-struck pair, Manel, was educated at Vishaka Vidyalaya until the age of thirteen.“At that point, it was decided that I could read and I could write, and that was enough.”

She remembers wonderful libraries at both Yamuna and their estate in Pothuhera, where after being taken out of school she “stayed home and read and read and read and read”.

Sri Nissanka, Manel remembers, was overprotective of his beautiful family, and kept them confined mostly to their homes. His wife and children looked forward to hearing him drive off in his favourite Riley or his Skoda for the evening, so that they could escape to cowboy films at the Savoy.

“I’m sure he was very aware that we were up to no good!” Manel laughs, remembering that he was in fact one of the best criminal lawyers at the time, and no fool.

“He was a most eloquent speaker,” A R B Amerasinghe wrote in “The Supreme Court of Sri Lanka: the first 185 years,” praising Sri Nissanka’s “deep and wide knowledge of men and matters” and “his mastery of the law”

“He was a most eloquent speaker,” A R B Amerasinghe wrote in “The Supreme Court of Sri Lanka: the first 185 years,” praising Sri Nissanka’s “deep and wide knowledge of men and matters” and “his mastery of the law.” Sri Nissanka’s powers of persuasion before the jury were universally admired, and his children were very aware of his gift and influence. “He would always begin light-heartedly, with a joke or something to engage his audience, and then he would get into the serious stuff,” Manel explains.

When Sri Nissanka was requested to make public appearances outside Colombo for small ceremonies and village gatherings, he would often take Manel with him. She was allowed to bring a friend, usually Henry Amarasuriya’s oldest daughter Rukmani, with whom she would sit and watch as Sri Nissanka graciously distributed prizes or inquired after villagers’ concerns, and listen to his moving eloquence. “I have never heard oratory like that anywhere else,” she says, again and again.

She knew though, that his genius was truly unleashed only in the courthouse, and often asked to accompany him there. “I was a good reader you see,” she begins explaining, “and Thaththi would get Mummy to wake me up in the night to read his briefs aloud to him. He would relax in his haansi putuwa and I would be half asleep of course, but as I read, the case would become clear to me, and I would be flabbergasted at the things people did!”

Manel longed to see her father in action, but he was strongly of the opinion that the courthouse was not a place for a young girl. It made her angry sometimes, but never dimmed her pride in who he was and what he did.

Her sentiments on his political affairs are drastically different. Sri Nissanka’s oldest child disapproved of his involvement in state affairs, and was unafraid to be vocal about it.“I don’t know what my father was doing in politics” is how she still denounces it, with a dismissive wave of her hand. What made the excellent and successful criminal lawyer turn to politics is a question Amal is also baffled by, the only available explanation being a strong loyalty and passion towards his nation and culture. In digging through tales of his grandfather’s youth, Amal finds that Edward Henry Pedris’ execution on 7 July 1915 was probably what sparked Sri Nissanka’s patriotism. Pedris, a socialite and Captain of the Ceylon Defence Force was sentenced to execution by firing squad, but the allegations against him were later proven false. The events caused a shock in Colombo, and Sri Nissanka wrote a moving poem about it soon after.

IMG_4077a-1280X720“He almost got arrested for it,” laughs Amal, “and he was only seventeen!”

The Principal of Royal College at the time, Charles Hartley promised authorities to keep a check on the young poet, but Amal thinks “he probably only encouraged him further!”

As most young men from affluent families did at the time, Sri Nissanka started Law College soon after he finished secondary education, but unlike most of these young men, he abandoned the venture halfway in exchange for the robes. His love of the Dhamma led the young monk to spend nearly two years at a monastery in Myanmar (Burma at the time). Then due to his father’s ill health, he was forced to disrobe and return to Sri Lanka. It is only after this that he decided on Oxford, where he quickly discovered and was accepted for his natural gift as a speaker. In the years following, until his untimely death on 26 February 1954, Sri Nissanka garnered renown for himself as one of the best lawyers in the criminal courts of Ceylon and Sri Lanka.

Through a turn of events his grandson is still trying to bring to light, Sri Nissanka was elected to parliament as an independent candidate from Kurunegala in 1947. And it is in the events following that Amal alleges controversy.

As the records go, a number of important meetings later called the “Yamuna Conferences” took place at Sri Nissanka’s home following the elections of 1947. His daughter Manel was only sixteen then, but her voracious reading made her curious of these events. “I used to sit on the staircase at Yamuna, and listen to these great men discuss what to do” she says. Many years hence, Manel recollects these “great” meetings with pronounced distaste. Instead of learned heroes with high ideals and plans for the transformation and redemption of a nation, what she remembers are ordinary conversations between ordinary men.

“It was disgusting to me that all they could think of was what ministry they would get after coming to power.”

What is agreed upon in the literature is that the establishment of the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) in 1951 is said to have been furthered, at least in part, at these meetings. What Amal hypothesizes instead is that the SLFP was in fact birthed at these meetings, and that it was not SWRD Bandaranaike but Herbert Sri Nissanka who played the main role in the inception of the party.

Well-known historian Prof. K M de Silva shrugs Amal’s theory off with a dismissive “not possible”. Sri Nissanka, he concedes, was probably the most intelligent of all Bandaranaike’s supporters, and his presence and power of persuasion may have played an important part in bringing the SLFP into being. But Sri Nissanka himself, de Silva says, could not have been the determining force: “he was quite a character, a man of contradictions, a very good lawyer and a fantastic speaker, but he was not trusted. He was not considered reliable. And yes, he got the Yamuna Conferences going, but so what? Nothing happened.”

In de Silva’s experience, stories upon stories exist, which do not correlate, on the birth of the SLFP. It has been reported that the motion to inaugurate the SLFP was made by Sri Nissanka at the historic meeting at Town Hall on 2 September 1951. High Commissioner to South Africa, Sarath Kongahage once referred to the Yamuna Conferences in an interview and called out the “deformation” of SLFP history. The daunting task, as de Silva sees it, is to sift through these and many other bits of badly kept information to find patterns and cohesion. Amal has taken on himself the arduous work of putting these and other pieces of the puzzle together. He himself never met his grandfather, but the tales he has heard from his mother, Manel, and whatever he continues to uncover leave Amal in admiration of his ancestor.

“He wasn’t a very tall man,” he smiles, “but I always think of him as a strong, towering figure”.

What Amal hypothesizes instead is that the SLFP was in fact birthed at these meetings, and that it was not SWRD Bandaranaike but Herbert Sri Nissanka who played the main role in the inception of the party

Despite – or by virtue of – her double-sided relationship with Sri Nissanka, Manel was held precious in her father’s eyes. “Mummy used to say that if I had been a boy, we would have been inseparable.” The hidden attachment of the father to the daughter, it seems, was mutual. When Sri Nissanka suddenly fell ill in 1953 and her mother began making plans for a nurse, Manel would have none of it. “Why should he have someone else looking after him when I was there?”

She packed up her belongings and taking her six-month-old daughter Avanti with her, temporarily left her husband’s home and moved back to Yamuna.
For eight months, Manel nursed her father. She cooked him his favourite fish moley and fed him caramel custard. She let him spend a few hours with his baby granddaughter each morning, and then bathed him. Once, as she scrubbed his failing body, he let down his guard momentarily for the first and last time.

“I was very harsh with you wasn’t I?” he asked, by way of an apology.

Nothing further needed to be said. At the last, his daughter was the only one Herbert Sri Nissanka, K C.,would be ruled by. “It was awful, awful,” she says, of watching him die. “You see, we were real friends by then. We had made our peace.”

The picture his daughter now paints of Herbert Sri Nissanka is of, as Prof. de Silva has gathered from his research, a conflicted and passionate man, who at his worst was sincere at heart.

“You can’t help it, some people are just like that,” the professor shrugs. “But if he had lived, he would have been a big man.” But to Amal Randhir Karunaratna, his grandfather is an unsung hero for what he achieved in his short life. The work before him now, is to make known the significance of his grandfather’s life and influence in Ceylon and Sri Lanka, to uncover the legend and restore the legacy of his grandfather Herbert Sri Nissanka.